It is generally accepted that as we grow older, we gain the kind of wisdom that can only come with life experience. There is a cultural norm of respecting your elders that I always assumed had something to do with this principle: in short, grandma has been on this earth longer than you, so shut up and learn something, kid. I think overall this is true – the young have much, much to learn from earlier generations.
I’m a 34-year-old woman, and I’m either young or old, depending who else is in the room with me. As a mother of two kids under three years old, I guess you could still call me a “young mother,” although in my case, the term would seem to refer more to “a mother of a young family,” than a mother who is literally, objectively, just young, period.
With this is mind, as a person stuck in between Generations X and Y, it’s safe to assume that members of the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers (which includes my own parents), and even the upper eschelons of Gen X (or “Gen X Classic,” as I like to call them) are my “elders,” at least in relative terms. And yes, I do respect my elders, for the experiences they have had that I have yet to experience—or in some cases, the negative experiences they had (first-wave feminists, anyone?) that I will hopefully never have, just because our predecessors had the nerve and determination to fight for the rights we have today.
Yes, there is often good reason to respect our elders, and listen to what they have to say, even if we sometimes disagree. And it’s always a good idea to be polite, and remember that those generational differences will sometimes lead us youngins to disagree.
But … (you knew there was going to be a huge “but” here, right?)
There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing that seems to manifest itself as a perversion of the “respect your elders” principle, whether intentionally or not. In some cases, we actually don’t need to blindly respect our elders. In fact, it’s probably best not to. When does this new rule apply? Here are some examples:
- When your elder gives an opinion based on a harmful racial or other kind of stereotype.
- When your elder makes “helpful” comments about how you need to lose weight, or get more protein, or sleep 8 hours a night, etc.
- When your elder simply remarks “that’s not how we did it in my day” in response to your parenting style, and offers no positive feedback or suggestions.
- When your elder makes you feel guilty for having a life of your own (in the context of a parent-child relationship), and pressures you to call or visit more often, despite your overwhelming full-time job and childcare duties.
- When your elder decides that a grandparent’s say in parenting matters most definitely trumps that of the child’s parents, due solely to age.
While we’re at it, let me address a different but related issue: I’m not at all saying that older generations, especially parents, should strive to be just like younger ones. Parents of adult children: be your fabulous self, please. We’re not looking for you to be “cool” like us (and those of us in our 30s shed any semblance of “cool” somewhere back at 22, trust me). We want you to be yourselves, and to continue expressing your unique personalities, worldviews, and traditions, old and new, based on all of the amazing knowledge you’ve amassed over the years. We want to learn — we just don’t want to be taken to school, if that makes any sense.
I guess what we are all looking for is compassion and trust. If you see me eat a bowl of ice cream, just do me a favor and hold your tongue, knowing that at some point, I will TRY to lose weight, because I’m smart, capable, and I know the ice cream is bad for me. Maybe today is just a bad day. Or maybe I ate celery all day and I’m just dying for something delicious. Or maybe my daughter is in the room, and I really don’t want her to associate eating ice cream with guilt and body image issues. Seriously, I got this.
I truly do believe that sometimes our parents or grandparents just want, so badly, to help, and that there are a lot of good intentions behind unwanted advice and uninformed opinions. I don’t want to minimize the importance of letting young parents make their own decisions and do what’s right for their own young families. But I think there is a benign quality to this stuff that keeps us from losing our cool when it happens. My mother, for example, has this thing about buying kid clothes without checking the sizes. I have no idea why she struggles with this, but she buys something on impulse because it’s cute, even though the tag says 24 months and my kid has been wearing 3T clothes for a while now. I hate that she’s wasting her money (she never seems to save the receipts), but it doesn’t really affect me, so I can let it go.
But when I make specific requests about what kinds of foods my kids can eat, or how much TV they can watch, or when it’s time to practice potty? That kind of thing is not negotiable. You can offer an opinion, but I’m not at all bound to follow it. That’s just the way it is. Case in point: my almost 3-year-old broke out in a rash around her mouth after eating walnuts the other day. Until we get her in to see an allergist, our marching orders from the pediatric nurse are no nuts, period—even though I know my kid has had almonds with no problems. So the other day, my parents wanted to give her pecans, and assured me that they are “low-allergy nuts.” Uh, you know what? I’m sticking with no nuts for now. I don’t think I’m being paranoid, or depriving my kid of a delicious nut experience that she will hate me for later in life—despite my parents’ protests that “this just wasn’t an issue when we were kids.”
I am beginning to think that we should recoin the phrase “respect your elders” as just this: respect everyone, period. Just respect people, old and young, for the right reasons. Respect each other for where each of us happen to be in life, and for the different times we grew up in, and the different experiences we have had, based on a wide variety of considerations including race, culture, religion, socio-economic standing, and other factors that shape identity and opinion. And respect yourself too: as a parent, don’t ever forget that you have your child’s best interests at heart and know what’s best for him or her. But when your child becomes old enough to form his own opinions, or take her own actions, please don’t continue to insist that you know what’s best, when maybe “best” means something different now, through your adult child’s eyes.
None of us should come knocking at the door of wisdom and then get upset when we don’t like what’s standing behind it … but that doesn’t mean we need to be the doormat, either.